The federal Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act requires employers to provide a safe working environment for employees. The law is enforced by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Many states also have their own workplace safety laws. In order to comply with the OSH Act and applicable state laws, employers must understand their obligations. They also need to know which law applies to their business.
When the OSH Act was passed, it preempted all state occupational safety and health laws. Each state then had the option of submitting a plan to the Secretary of Labor for approval. If the secretary found the plan acceptable, then the state's law was allowed to stand.
In these states, called "state plan states," employers must follow the state's laws, regulations, and standards on workplace health and safety, not the federal OSH Act.
The state plan states are:
Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York also have workplace safety laws, but they cover state and local government employees only. Private employers must still follow the federal law.
If your business operates in one of the state plan states listed above, you can find information about your state's laws and resources on the U.S. Department of Labor's website, at www.osha.gov (look for State Occupational Safety and Health Plans).
If your business does not operate in one of the states listed above, then you must follow the federal OSH Act, as described below.
You must follow the OSH Act's rules for every worker in your business, regardless of the worker's title, status, or classification. This means that the law covers managers, supervisors, partners, stockholders, officers, and family members who work for you as well as rank-and-file employees.
The law does not, however, cover independent contractors or family members of a farm operator.
The OSH Act requires covered employers to maintain a workplace that is free of hazards that they know or should know about, and that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical injury. These are called "recognized hazards."
Hazards can be unsafe conditions (for example, toxic fumes or broken equipment) or unsafe practices (for example, push starting tractors or operating circular saws with one hand instead of both hands). If you can easily detect a hazard by walking through your workplace and using your senses (for example, you can see or smell the hazard), then you must get rid of it. You must also use reasonable means to look for and eliminate hazards.
Your duty to provide a safe working environment extends beyond the four walls of your building. Wherever you send people to do work must be safe, even if the work takes place elsewhere (such as at a construction or demolition site).
The OSH Act requires you to provide tools and equipment that are in safe working condition. It also requires you to adequately train and supervise employees. And it requires you to provide specific safety equipment when necessary.
Although the general safety standards described above apply to everyone, some of OSHA's standards apply only to particular industries, such as construction, maritime and longshoring, or agriculture. These safety standards can be complicated. See "Where Can I Turn For Help," below, for information on finding assistance in figuring out which rules apply to you.
Your obligations under the OSH Act don't stop with maintaining a safe work environment. You must also meet certain reporting requirements, posting requirements, and recordkeeping requirements, and you must submit to OSHA inspections.
For example, you must report fatal accidents to OSHA within eight hours of their occurrence. You must post an OSHA poster informing workers of their rights and obligations under the law.
You must also keep records of your efforts to comply with the law and to prevent injuries and illnesses. (For more information about these requirements, read Nolo's article OSHA Compliance: Recordkeeping, Reporting, Posting, and Inspection Rules.)
The OSH Act gives employees certain rights to take action to ensure that their workplace is safe. For example, workers may file complaints with OSHA regarding unsafe working conditions or other OSHA violations, and you may not retaliate against them for doing so.
Workers may also refuse to work when they face imminent danger in the workplace, and, once again, you may not retaliate against them for doing so. Indeed, it is very important that you, as the employer, do not attempt to suppress workers' rights in any way. Otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to fines, penalties, or worse.
OSHA has a lot of great information on its website. Of particular interest is its Compliance Assistance section. There, you will find fact sheets, booklets, Expert Advisors, eTools, and Safety and Health Topics pages.
For comprehensive information about OSHA, including how to comply with its provisions, get The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin and Sachi Barreiro (Nolo).